After many attempts, I finally managed to find a cellphone company that offers 3G access out here in the village, so I am happy to present you today this interview with writer, performer and escapologist extraordinnaire, Robert Wringham.
I found out about Robert’s endeavors online, and have since been in touch with him, contributing a couple of articles to the New Escapologist, “an irregularly published magazine that celebrates the “flight” bit of the “fight or flight” quandary”. New Escapologist promotes freedom, Anarchy and the Absurd, and thus is a perfect fit for TFA.
In this interview, Robert and I talk about ignoring the system, absurdity, the status quo of comedy, and how minimalism helped him to escape from his day job.
What is Escapology and why does it matter?
I’m starting to see Escapology as being a special strain of Anarchy. Where traditional Anarchists would want to smash the system in various ways, I advocate simply ignoring the system wherever possible. There’s a philosophy professor I like called Roderick Long: he said something about disregarding the demands of the government as if they were the demands of a delusional street person. I like that description: as a left-winger, I sympathise with the State but their demands on our time, money, liberty and obedience are often too great.
Whenever I see government documentation or an episode of Question Time, I think, “How dare they speak to us like that?” I won’t be hemmed in to a certain mode of behaviour just because they’ve deemed it the correct one and ensured its continuation through force.
To answer your question more directly though, Escapology is about engineering a situation in which you don’t have to deal with the rubbish we’re expected to deal with: a career, a mortgage, debt, too much tax, too much property, annoying things like cell phones, mind-rotting distractions like television. Instead, try and foster a more vital and frigal way of living – as the Bohemians did – so that you don’t have to work so hard, maybe even make a living through your art, and you can laugh all of these things off.
Have you ever attended an Anarchist meeting? They like ‘fairness’ and so they become obsessed with things like committees and agenda and provisions. They develop highly complicated little bureaucracies, which is one of the things they probably hate about the government but they end up doing it themselves. Better to get disorganised, I say, and just get on with living.
When it comes to Escapology, you seem to be very good at balancing theory and practice: Not only did you start a magazine on the topic, but you also created freedom for yourself, escaped from work and moved to another continent. What was the main lesson you learned?
On a personal note, I think I learned that my natural state is a kind of nervousness. When I was a worker I would worry constantly about not having enough time to do my own stuff, that I wouldn’t be able to meet a deadline or that I would sleep through my alarm again and not get to the office on time. Now that I’ve escaped, I worry about other things: that the money will run out one day, that the plan will fail (which would be very embarrassing since I’ve, perhaps foolishly, made it a public endeavor through the magazine), whether my girlfriend’s family see me as an unconventional entrepreneur or as a lazy bum and what that means for our relationship. I’d like to worry less: I don’t want to be like Leonard Nimoy.
For a more transferable lesson, I think it’s important to remember absurdity. I’ve not written enough about this. Basically, nothing really matters: as long as we’re true to our own ethics and that we reassess these ethics from time to time, it doesn’t matter what we do. We can spend our life in a luxury office in the Empire State Building or we can spend it sleeping rough in Central Park: it doesn’t matter. There’s probably no god and nobody is watching or judging us beyond our own superegos, which don’t really exist either. We are free to do what we want. There’s no such thing as success or failure beyond what we decide there is. There’s no totting up of accounts at the end of your life by some ethereal jury. You’re just a system of nerves and glands and teats, roaming the drier bits of a ball of dirt in space. This is not a bad thing.
I also think Epicurus was onto something: the idea of maximising pleasure and minimising suffering. The Epicureans started as individuals: how can you maximise the pleasure throughout your own life? (They learned to appreciate the idle and natural pleasures and lived frugally). But also they set up academies and helped to raise the common good. That’s why I try to get the message out through the magazine and the blog: I don’t just want to say “fuck you all, I’ll do what I like”. That’s what separates Escapology from Libertarianism, and where Anarchy sometimes goes wrong. Also, any project needs dissemination: in a way, I’m conducting a societal experiment on myself and publishing the results as I go along.
Many other people seem to struggle with escaping: When young, everybody has dreams and big ideas, but most people, at one moment in their lives, just seem to give up. What’s the one thing preventing us from escaping?
It’s no one thing: it’s a complicated system of internal and external pressures that makes us fail. Also, I don’t think most people even think of it as something that can really be achieved. They’re happy to sit, aging, in an office somewhere and making ironic remarks about how sunny it is outside.
If we want to be reductive though, let’s say it comes down to two main things: Bad Faith (internally) and Restricted Mobility (externally). Bad Faith (which we cover extensively in Issue Four) is when you convince yourself that something is impossible when it’s obviously very possible. You say “I can’t visit Pakistan” or “I can’t quit my job” when you very well can. People do this because true freedom is slightly frightening, so they procrastinate and come up with excuses as to why they can’t be free. Externally, there’s Restricted Mobility. You’re restricted because you have to obey certain rules, such as getting a house and a job and a hairstyle and an iPad and a funny t-shirt. You’re restricted by having too much
stuff in your possession: you’re unlikely to get up and go one day if you have an expensive home and a bunch of useless stuff inside it. You’re restricted because you’ve allowed yourself to become manipulated by adverts and conformed to the behaviour of characters on television, whose inadequacies (usually sex-related if the character is a man and shoe-related if the character is a woman) are there for entertainment purposes but misinterpreted as admirable.
The notion of “escaping” is a nice counterpoint to “fighting”. I personally, for example, have never been mugged in my life thanks to being a decent short distance runner, even when being on the road in flip-flops. But what do say to people confronting you for being a coward as an escapologist?
It’s weird, because it seems slightly cowardly to me too. Avoidance is surely cowardly, right? But most people I meet describe me as ‘brave’ because they see I’m going against the grain and not mindlessly following the dollar. If Escapology is cowardly, I think the defense lies in this area.
Also, “Fight or flight” is an economic decision and I’m not sure whether bravado or cowardice have a place in economics, which should be about rational decision-making in order to maximise the desired outcome. When confronted by the question of fight or flight, you have to decide whether anything can be achieved by fighting. Any sensible person or animal would avoid a fight if the opponent is too strong, if you have nothing worthy of protecting, and if -above all else- more can be achieved by fleeing.
You’re not only a writer, but also a stage comedian. In a recent article you described comedy as “a dangerous commodity” that “should be left in the hands of experts”. Although the context was a bit ironic, comedy seems to have lost much of this “dangerous” element nowadays, as every good joke or parody may just be another viral marketing campaign. What do you think about the subversive potential of comedy in the 21st century?
That bit of writing was a comic performance, so I adopted an overly judgmental attitude for comic effect. The incident it describes genuinely happened though and I was genuinely annoyed at the insistence of these men that we all laugh at their rubbish prank (if indeed that’s what it was). They were police officers though, so we can’t expect much more from them than persistent aggravation of the public.
I think you’ve discovered the shameful truth that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to sense of humour. I’m irritated, unamused and ashamed by most comedy acts and the one bad thing about Montreal is that the comedy here is very, very poor. Proper comedy is still out there though. It grew up in the 1980s and has never gone away. We have brilliant comedians like Chris Lynam, Ian Macpherson, Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee, Arnold Brown, Tony Law, Johnny Vegas, Boothby Graffoe, Richard Herring, Andy Zaltzman, Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Jerry Sadowitz. They’re all subversive in their own ways and very, very clever. It’s not quite my cup of tea, but ‘The Daily Show’ is hugely subversive and is a major force in the North American mainstream. Subversion doesn’t need to be the main drive of a piece of standup
though: we just need cleverly-constructed and timed routines worthy of being on stage.
Let’s talk about the “money and stuff” issue. Isn’t this whole idea of downsizing and modern minimalism arrogant behavior of affluent Westerners?
It’s the behaviour of affluent Westerners, not because we’re arrogant, but because non-affluent Easterners don’t have the same problems as we do. In most of the east, the problem is finding enough desalinated water to drink or keeping idiot Christian missionaries (from the west) from giving them all AIDS with their bad advice. They don’t need to minimalise because they don’t have the glut of luxury that we have, and they don’t have advertising screaming ‘acquire!’ in their faces all day long. There is such a thing as an affluent East too: the rising middle-class in India will soon have to curb their consumption habits, China are ruining the planet for everyone and Japan’s commodity fetishism surely offsets any efforts they’re making to be friends of the environment.
Westeners are becoming more understanding of the societal and environmental concerns attached to having too much stuff as well as the infringement it all has on our personal liberty. I think it is the personal liberty element of minimalism that you wanted to talk about though, since that’s what I bang on about all the time. All I can say is that the proof is in the pudding: I managed to quit my job (hopefully forever) and minimalising was an important part of that: I kicked my addiction to buying things (thus saving a lot of money) and I made it very easy to travel when all of my stuff fits in a single suitcase.
This is related to the last question: Being one of these “affluent Westerners” myself, I sometimes wonder about all the fear out there. Having received some decent (self-)education and being more or less a healthy person, isn’t it ridiculous that it’s often financial fears that hold us back from doing our “thing”?
It’s not ridiculous exactly. Money is important. It’s the only fruit of our labours and it’s the only way to ‘store’ our labour. Other systems like barter are useful sometimes but they don’t really cut the mustard. But you’re right about fear. People are reluctant to quit their jobs in case they never make any money again and end up dying in the street. It’s true that money is the modern commodity essential to dignity.
I’d say two things to those people living in fear though: (1) You don’t need as much money as you think you do. If you can embrace minimalism and frugality, you’ll be able to live on far less than you think and not have to work so many hours; (2) Use your job as a career gym before you leave it: learn as many useful skills and poach ideas from the office’s most interesting people. This will all help to make yourself re-employable should the escape plan fail. It’s like a little insurance plan: it has a practical application but also helps salve your fear. Recognise that job security is an illusion.
Do you see there’s a potential for humanist entrepreneurs, i.e. people that were not raised with the classical goal-oriented economic thinking?
There’s definitely the potential. An economist called E. F. Schumacher wrote about precisely this in the 1970s. His book is called Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered and is well worth a read.
There’s also ethical investing. One dollar, one vote. Invest in companies that can further the human endeavor rather than hamper it: green initiatives, human rights organisations, advocacy journalism, sustainable development, the transfer of technology to less-economically-developed countries. If you have to buy products, try to support microbreweries and the likes, so we can start getting rid of the giant companies that arse things up for everyone.
What’s coming up next for Robert Wringham? New Escapologist was first intended to last only three issues, but now there’s a fourth one coming up. Do you know already where it will go next, and what other projects do you have on your mind?
I’d like to do more Escapology-driven events. We did the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair this year and an event with Tom Hodkginson last year. They were both great fun. I like the idea of some sort of music and comedy cabaret night, perhaps as a launch party for a future issue but perhaps just for its own sake.
I also do an improvised comedy podcast with my friend Dan. It’s very different to what you get in New Escapologist and I’m slightly embarrassed about it. It’s kind of our Derek and Clive. We have a few beers, set Dan’s computer to record and just talk. The characters we play in the podcast are inflated versions of our real selves: I’m arrogant and attention-seeking, and Dan is kindly and unassuming. It’s probably rubbish but it’s good fun to make. We’ll probably record a one-off later this month and then do a load more in October. It’d be fun to do live recordings with an audience one day
New Escapologist has really grown legs. When I started, I never wanted it to be my main project (I wanted to be a standup comedian), so I said it would be a mini-run for three issues. It’s really gathered momentum now though and a lot of people are excited about it, so it seems a shame to quit. There’s also a lot left to talk about. Issue 5 will be about Bohemia and Issue 6 will be about Evolution. I’m also looking into publishing the first four issues as a ‘collected works’-type book for the shops. Issue Four is out now too.
Robert, thanks a lot for taking the time for this interview!
Photo by Sieglinde Cassel